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Gideon Rosenblatt
Grounding Machines in Humanity
Grounding Machines in Humanity

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The alphabet changed the way we think. Artificial intelligence will do the same.

My latest, on alphabets, memorization, and what it says about the way we will know things in the future.

Like much of my writing, this one was inspired by a conversation here on Google+. In this case, it was +Laura Gibbs, recommending the book I talk about in this piece and interesting additional thoughts from +Thomas Morffew, +Sowmyan Tirumurti, and +John Verdon.

#knowledge #artificialintelligence #alphabet

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Daniel Dennett's Long Focus on Consciousness

Here are a few highlights from a longish piece on Daniel Dennett, philosopher of mind, science and biology.

The problem presupposes that consciousness is like a light switch: either an animal has a self or it doesn’t. But Dennett thinks these things are like evolution, essentially gradualist, without hard borders. The obvious answer to the question of whether animals have selves is that they sort of have them. He loves the phrase “sort of.” Picture the brain, he often says, as a collection of subsystems that “sort of” know, think, decide, and feel. These layers build up, incrementally, to the real thing. Animals have fewer mental layers than people—in particular, they lack language, which Dennett believes endows human mental life with its complexity and texture—but this doesn’t make them zombies. It just means that they “sort of” have consciousness, as measured by human standards.
If philosophy were a sport, its ball would be human intuition. Philosophers compete to shift our intuitions from one end of the field to the other. Some intuitions, however, resist being shifted. Among these is our conviction that there are only two states of being: awake or asleep, conscious or unconscious, alive or dead, soulful or material. Dennett believes that there is a spectrum, and that we can train ourselves to find the idea of that spectrum intuitive.
“Darwin’s dangerous idea,” Dennett writes, is that Bach’s music, Christianity, human culture, the human mind, and Homo sapiens “all exist as fruits of a single tree, the Tree of Life,” which “created itself, not in a miraculous, instantaneous whoosh, but slowly, slowly.” He asks, “Is this Tree of Life a God one could worship? Pray to? Fear? Probably not.” But, he says, it is “greater than anything any of us will ever conceive of in detail worthy of its detail. . . . I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. This world is sacred.”
Consider your laptop. It’s processing information but isn’t having experiences. Now, suppose that every year your laptop gets smarter. A few years from now, it may, like I.B.M.’s Watson, win “Jeopardy!” Soon afterward, it may have meaningful conversations with you, like the smartphone voiced by Scarlett Johansson in “Her.” Johansson’s character is conscious: you can fall in love with her, and she with you. There’s a soul in that phone. But how did it get there? How was the inner space of consciousness opened up within the circuits and code? This is the hard problem. Dennett regards it, too, as a philosopher’s fantasy. Chalmers thinks that, at present, it is insurmountable. If it’s easy for you to imagine a conscious robot, then you probably side with Dennett. If it’s easier to imagine a robot that only seems conscious, you’re probably with Chalmers.
Physics, Dennett said, tells us that there are more than three dimensions, and we can use math to prove they’re there; at the same time, we struggle to picture them in our heads. That doesn’t mean they’re not real. Perhaps, he thought, the wholly material soul is similarly hard to imagine. “I’m not ready to say it’s unimaginable, because there are times when I think I can imagine it,” he said, “and then it doesn’t seem to be such a big leap at all. But—it is.”

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When AI Training Data Meets a Black Swan

How the Long Tail makes it extremely difficult to determine training set size for machine learning.

HT to +Oleg Moskalensky

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Evolutionary algorithms represent another, important branch of machine learning. Pedro Domingo did an excellent job of explaining it and the various other approaches to AI algorithms in his book, The Master Algorithm.
Can evolutionary algorithms provide a technique to discover effective neural network architectures automatically? Check out a nice writeup by +Quartz on some new experiments by the Google Brain team ( and OpenAI.

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Older, Northern, Re-Org'ed Dinos

Baron’s tree rewrites the first chapters of the dinosaur story in several ways. It suggests that they first arose around 247 million years ago, slightly earlier than the 231 to 243 million year range that’s typically cited. It hints that they might have originated in the northern half of the world rather than the southern half. And most importantly, it says that the ancestral dinosaurs split into two major groups—just not the ones we traditionally recognize.

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Alexa as Dominating the Voice Platform?

I must admit that I've not been giving Amazon's Alexa sufficient attention. According to this Backchannel piece, Amazon is set to really own this space. Personally, I think this race is far from over. It's just getting started and Google has many, many tricks up its sleeve on this front.

#alexa #voice #VoiceComputing

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Remember Google Posts? They're Now Open to Organizations

In case you forgot, Google is allowing celebs to create "Posts" that can be posted directly to the search results pages.

As of today, Google is now opening up this functionality to organizations and is initially targeting movies, museums, sports teams, and sports leagues.

"We’ve opened up posting on Google to museums, sports teams, sports leagues, and movies in the US, and all of the above plus musicians in Brazil. We’re continuing to experiment with other categories and regions, so stay tuned."

Want to see an example? Search for "vanessa da mata" and look at the box on the right side of the page, titled "Vanessa da Mata on Google". If you click through to more, you get a stream of posts like this:

How much traction will this approach get? No clue, but with something like this, why in the world would you ever bother with a Google+ Page if you're an organization trying to reach people? I wouldn't.

It's unclear what the approval process really entails, but here's the link if you're curious:

#Google #Posts

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This brings me back to the question of what the tech plutocrats mean by freedom. Martin Luther King led the March on Washington for “jobs and Freedom.” It’s obvious now that the new freedom brought to us by the libertarian elite will not come with jobs. The fact that Facebook generates revenues of $8 billion with less than 9000 employees speaks volumes. Is Peter Thiel’s idea of corporations, free to reap monopoly profits free from government regulation, what we want for our country? Thiel’s icon Ayn Rand defines freedom as “to ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing.” How far is this from Jefferson’s great inspiration, the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who defines the good life in these terms?

* The company of good friends.

* The freedom and autonomy to enjoy meaningful work.

* The willingness to live an examined life with a core faith or philosophy.

I worry that our universities are being turned into trade schools in the pursuit of the almighty tech dollar. Are we forsaking the humanities and a basic liberal arts education all in promise to prepare students for the shark tank that awaits them in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street? As I said at the outset, I have no answers, but another phrase from Dr. King’s sermon calls out to me: “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and unguided men.”

Let us not assume that this technological revolution we are living through has but one inevitable outcome. History is made by man, not by corporations or machines. It is time to wake up and begin to think about a digital renaissance. As my colleague Ethan Zuckerman said, “It’s obvious now what we did was a fiasco, so let me remind you that what we wanted to do was something brave and noble.” Your generation does not need to surrender to some sort of techno-determinist future. Let’s try and “rewire” (Ethan’s term) the Internet.

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Humanity, what are we doing?

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Trump's polarity in opposing climate action is creating an equal and opposite reaction. A great read by +Alex Steffen​.
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